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Merchant of Venice -04/13/1999

Creative team: Director Tim Hardy; Scenic Designer Curtis C. Trout; Costume Designer Marcia M. McDonald; Lighting Designer Laura Schmitt; Sound Designer/Composer Scott Fenstermaker; Choreographer: Jean McFarland Kerr.

Play: The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
Venue: IWU McPherson Theater
Dates: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
Cost: Adults, $5; seniors, $4; IWU students, $1


Is Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" too far out of step with today's mores to work anymore?

Some scholars think so. Director Tim Hardy, mounting "The Merchant of Venice" at Illinois Wesleyan's McPherson Theater, is clearly not among the nay-sayers. He has created a terrific production that couldn't be more current, with a clarity of focus that is as remarkable as it is impressive.

Setting the action in 1930's Venice, Hardy takes advantage of the rise of Black-shirted fascism and anti-semitism to add political tension to this tale of a Bassanio, a young man who needs money to gain the hand of Portia, an heiress, and his friend, a merchant named Antonio, who looks to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the funds Bassanio needs.

The story thus proceeds on two levels -- the love story of Bassanio and Portia, complete with a series of suitors and a test that each must perform to win the girl, and the darker story of Christian Antonio and the bad bargain he has made with Shylock the Jew for a "pound of flesh" if the debt isn't repaid.

In Shakespeare's time, the Jew was presented as a one-note villain in a red fright wig (red to connote a connection to the devil) and the troubling conclusion -- where Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity -- was a happy ending, a display of mercy to save a soul. Still, Shakespeare gave his villain some marvelous speeches and a lot more humanity than that stereotyped status might indicate, including the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech.

Hardy's version makes the play much more opaque, and much less comic. Yes, the humorous parts of the play are intact, but it is in the murkier waters that "The Merchant of Venice" has its impact. Bassanio and Portia, winningly played by Thomas Taylor and Sarah Schlinder, become characters who seem charming and sympathetic as they fall in love, but their underlying intolerance and bigotry still poisons them in court.

As Shylock, Paul Kneer is strong and unstinting, not shying away from the unpleasant side of the character and presenting a fully-rounded human being who does indeed bleed when he's pricked, who seeks revenge when he's wronged.

I also enjoyed Kate Whitton Siepert as a spunky Nerissa, Portia's maid, Kirsten Gronfield with a different take on the clown, Launcelot Gobbo.

The play is mounted beautifully, with a gorgeous Venice street scene set from designer Curtis C. Trout, and a nifty array of 1930's costumes from Marcia M. McDonnell.

Scott Fenstermaker's music adds evocative notes to this excellent, layered production.

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